IF YOU WRITE IT THEN YOU MIGHT WANT TO PUT SOME MALWARE ON IT:
AN ACCOUNT OF WRITING A NOVEL UNDER SURVEILLANCE.
The author Hilary Mantel once said, “You write to impose yourself on the world.” And granted, what’s usually ‘imposed’ on completion of a novel is the ‘this has been through drafting, re-writes, several mental breakdowns, more re-writes, self-pity parties, anxious proof reads, sliding scales of alcoholism and sleep deprivation, and painful final edits’ version, but what happens if this imposition includes (with your full knowledge and authorisation) every keystroke made during the process of writing? Not just that ‘not quite as good but somewhat insightful’ earlier draft, but every time you felt a strange, perhaps subconscious, impulse to type, say, “David Cameron is a tit”, or hit out at the keyboard in a moment of frustration at the end of a long day, “aksjghajsdhlkasYTHO”. Well, UK based author CM Taylor has found out, after agreeing to a project whereby the British Library installed key logging software (or spyware) on to his laptop, with the aim of documenting in the minutiae the creative process of writing his book, 'Staying On'.
Propelled by a preoccupation with lost drafts and the “long-haul loneliness” of novel writing, Taylor explains what motivated the ‘Key Logging Project’:
“I began speculating about writer’s archives. Did previous scholars have access to more hand-written and typed drafts of works in progress – actual objects showing the shaping of works of art – but with the normalisation of computerised authorship, were these discrete drafts abolished in the rolling palimpsest of write and digital re-write?”
Taylor purchased a separate machine which would be used only for writing the novel (and for anyone sat in Starbucks with their Apple MacBook wondering what it takes to be a writer: it was a basic reconditioned laptop, no less) to avoid running into privacy issues. In addition to recording the keystrokes made in the document in which the novel sits, the software used, ‘Spector Pro’, could track keystroke usage across the whole system (recording and transcribing chat conversations, emails, websites visited etc.) so the use of a sole purpose laptop was essential in avoiding complex issues around multiple consent, among other thorny legal conundrums.
Throughout the process of writing his novel, Taylor visited the British Library to download the data over eight separate occasions between October 2014 and March 2018, culminating in 222GB of data captured across 108,318 files, consisting of screen shots and
The data is now available in the public domain, under a creative Commons BY Licence, available free at: https://data.bl.uk/cmtaylorkeylogging and Taylor invites scholars, digital artists and creatives to experiment with the data.
The novel that made the final edit, ‘Staying On’ was published by Duckworth in October 2018.
Read more about the Keystroke Logging Project here: British Library Blogs